Recommendsday: Books with Amazing Houses

So yesterday I took advantage of the last of my post-nightshift days off to go on a family jolly to Blenheim Palace.  It’s less than an hour from home, but surprisingly I’d never been before – perhaps because it’s not National Trust or English Heritage so you have to pay.  It was fabulous – and I got my day ticket converted into a year pass (which doesn’t cost any extra to do) so I can go back again and see some of the bits we didn’t have time for on Tuesday.  Any how, after a day out at a country house, it got me thinking about books which feature amazing houses.  So here’s a few for you for Recommendsday.

Blenheim Palace

OK the sky wasn’t as blue as I was hoping, but at least we didn’t get rained on…

I know it’s totally the obvious choice, but I had to start with Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.  It’s not my favourite Waugh (that’s Vile Bodies) but I know I may be in the minority on that.  I had a massive Waugh kick a couple of years ago and read a whole load of his novels back to back and for the most part they still really work.  Brideshead tells of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and their upper class and crazy world.  The house is at the centre of it all as a character in and of itself.  Well worth reading if you haven’t already.  I definitely need to watch one or other of the TV/film versions soon.  And read Vile Bodies too.

Next, if you haven’t read any Roderick Alleyn books (and why not?) the first in the series, A Man Lay Dead, is set around a weekend party at a country house where one of the guests ends up dead.  Again, it’s not my favourite of the Alleyns (that’s Artists in Crime) but it’s a really good start to the series and a really good example of a country house murder mystery.

It feels like a while since I mentioned Rebecca on here, which is strange since the Du Maurier classic is one of my mum’s favourite books and I have a lovely Virago hardback copy which sits on my downstairs keeper shelf.  It’s creepy and gothic and has one of the most famous opening lines in literature in “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again”.  If you haven’t read it, why not and if you have go and reread it.  You won’t regret it*.

Finally, if you want something funny, try PG Wodehouse’s Blandings series.  The first one is Something Fresh, where you meet Lord Emsworth, his son Freddie and his secretary The Efficient Baxter and get a taste for the sort of high jinx that ensue.  I think I like them better than the Jeeves and Wooster books, but again I think I’m in the minority there.

I could go on – I haven’t even mentioned I Capture the Castle, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre or The Secret Garden..

All recommendations for more books with amazing houses gratefully received, in the meantime

Happy reading!

*Even if, spoiler alert, you never trust a housekeeper again.

Book of the Week: The Stars Are Fire

This week’s BotW is Anita Shreve’s new novel, The Stars Are Fire, which came out last week and which I finished at the weekend.  Shreve has been on my list of authors that I really ought to have read, and this piqued my interest when I saw it on NetGalley so it seemed like an opportunity to rectify that omission.  And it turned out to be a good decision.

Cover of The Stars Are Fire

I think this cover is pretty – but I’m not sure it really represents Grace.

The Stars Are Fire is set in Maine in 1947 where Grace Holland is struggling with her marriage.  Her husband Gene is distant and won’t talk about the war, her mother-in-law hates her, she has two small children and a third on the way.  When a massive fire breaks out after a long summer drought, Gene goes to join the volunteer firefighters to try and prevent it from reaching the town.  Grace is left alone to try and defend their house and protect their children.  When the flames arrive, she watches her home burn to the ground and is forced into the sea to shelter from the waves.  When the morning comes, her home is gone and her husband is missing and she’s forced to try and build a new reality.

I was a little sceptical about this book when I started reading it, and while I still have a few reservations, the book was engrossing and kept me turning the pages eager to know what happened next.  My main issue with the book was with Gene, who doesn’t feel like a fully rounded character.  You’re not meant to like him, but I struggled to get a sense of who he was and why Grace had been interested in dating him in the first place.  For me the most enjoyable part of the book was the middle section, but I always knew that it wasn’t going to last.  The final section of the novel felt a little rushed and underdeveloped.  I was a little worried about how it was all going to be resolved (or if it was going to be resolved) but at the end I was happy.

That all sounds a little negative, but they’re fairly small quibbles when set against the beautiful writing and how engaging and intriguing Grace is as a character.  She’s strong and reslient and seizes opportunities out of the ruins left by the fire.  I hadn’t heard of the Great Fire of 1947 before I read this book and Shreve paints a vivid picture of the heat and drought leading up to it as well as the terror of the actual events.  The stifling atmosphere before the fire is mirrored in the way that Grace feels in her marriage – although she doesn’t realise how trapped she feels at the time.  Although the fire brings her personal loses, it is also the making of Grace and the woman we leave at the end of the book feels very different to the one we met at the start, which makes for a satisfying read.

The Stars Are Fire is out now in hardback (sorry) and ebook.    As previously mentioned, my copy came from NetGalley but you can get hold of it from on Kindle or Kobo and from Amazon, Waterstones, Foyles or you could order it from the Big Green Bookshop.  I suspect it’s the sort of book that will be out on the tables in bookshops and at the airport, although I don’t suggest that you read it on the beach or somewhere hot as it may leave you paranoid about wildfires!  I read it on the train and it made several journeys to and from work fly by.

Happy Reading!

Books of the Year 2016

Now 2017 is well underway, and I’ve told you about my obsessions, the state of the (enormous) pile, and my #ReadHarder ambitions, it seemed like a good time to finally work out what my favourite books published last year were.  I know.  Everyone else did this weeks ago, but I didn’t want anything really excellent that I might have read at the end of the year to get missed out.  And yes, fractured elbow.  It’s my excuse for everything.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

“Fred!” the nurse said, though they had never met. “How are we today?” Reading the nurse’s name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, “Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?”

Considering how much I loved this book, I have said remarkably little about it on here.  I recommended it in the Christmas gift post and back in the Summer Reads post, but it wasn’t a Book of the Week – because I was expecting to be reviewing it elsewhere.  And I don’t think that adequately conveys how much I adored it.  But Sittenfeld’s modern reworking of Pride and Prejudice is my favourite book of last year.

If the quote at the top makes you laugh or smile (even if it’s only inside because you’re too cool) then you need to read this book.  I’ve read a lot of Austen retellings, reworkings, sequels and the like and this manages to strike a perfect (for me) balance of retelling the story but modernising it so that it feels relevant to today.  Lizzie (nearly 40 rather than 20) and her sisters are trust fund babies in Cincinatti, but the money is running out, their father has medical problems and their mother has a shopping problem.  Darcy is a surgeon, Bingley a reality TV star (don’t let that put you off) and Lydia and Kitty are obsessed with Crossfit.  I want to read it again – but my copy is still out on loan.   The paperback isn’t out until June, but you could pre-order from Amazon or Waterstones and have a lovely treat in the summer, the Kindle and Kobo versions are £5.99 at time of writing or you could go nuts and buy the hardback from Amazon, Foyles or Waterstones – Waterstones was cheapest when I was writing – doing it on click and collect for £7.50 which is a total bargain for a hardback.  I don’t think you’ll regret it.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

As I said in my BotW post last month, this book is going to win all the prizes and will be on English Literature sylabuses in years to come.  Cora’s story is incredibly tough to read – and it’s partly the contrast between the realism of the terrible things that are happening and the magical realism of making the Underground Railroad a real, actual railway with stations, and trains that makes this such an incredible read.  And the writing is beautiful.  As you all know, I don’t read a lot of “literary fiction” – and I don’t have a lot of success with books that have been nominated for awards, but I’m so glad I read it – and I’ve been singing its praises to my literary fiction-reading friends.  Still only in hardback I’m afraid, but bizarrely the paperback comes out the same day as Eligible – even though this was released six months later than the Sittenfeld.  Odd.  Anyway.  In hardback from Amazon, Foyles, Waterstones, on Kindle and Kobo or pre-order the paperback on Amazon or Waterstones.

The Barista’s Guide to Espionage by Dave Sinclair

The Barista's guide to Espionage

The Barista’s guide to Espionage

Yes I know.  You’re sick of my Fahrenheit obsession.  Well tough.  Their books made up nearly 20 percent of my 5 star books last year, so they were bound to figure here.  Sorry, not sorry.  Anyway, this story about Eva Destruction – James Bond and Stephanie Plum’s lovechild – was another BotW and I defy anyone not to enjoy Eva’s battle to try to stop her evil supervillain ex-boyfriend from taking over the world.  It’s an action thriller film in book form but with a smart woman doing the saving not a suave bloke in a suit (he tries, but she’s better than him).  Get it on Kindle or in paperback.

Death of a Nobody by Derek Farrell

From Eva Destruction to Poirot on Poppers, the second Danny Bird book is the second Fahrenheit book on this list.  The first book (Death of a Diva) is funny, but this book feels like a series hitting its stride.  It’s got a great, off-beat cast, zingy one-liners, lashings of sarcasm and an up-and-coming gastro pub with a rising body count and a gangster breathing down Danny’s neck.  I’m recommending this to my friends who read cozy crime who want something that’s not cupcakes, bakeries or crafting.  I can’t wait for book three. Get it on Kindle or in paperback.  You can thank me later.

Grunt by Mary Roach

Grunt by Mary Roach

Grunt by Mary Roach

And this is why I’m glad I wrote this post so very late.  This was the last book I finished in 2016 and it was one of the very best – definitely the best non-fiction book I read last year.  It was BotW last week – so there’s no need for me to say anymore about it really because it’s less than a week since I raved about it at you.  I think it’s going to be this year’s go-to pick for a non fiction book to give as a gift.  Buy it (paperback!) from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones or on Kindle.

And there’s your five. If this had been a top ten the other five would probably have been: Little Bookshop of Lonely Hearts, Best of Dear Coquette, The Madwoman Upstairs, Carry On (sneaking in because the paperback came out in 2016) and You Can’t Touch My Hair.

Book of the Week: Angel

You may be relieved to hear that this weeks BotW is neither Fahrenheit Press book or a Christmas book – even though the title might suggest that it could be the latter.  It is however the perfect book for curling up with on a sofa on a wintry afternoon.

hardback copy of Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

My second hand copy- the stain on the front was there when I got it, the dent in the top… I’m not sure.

The titular Angel is the spoilt darling of a grocery shop proprietress, who spins fantasies to her school mates about a glamorous house where her aunt is a maid.  When she is found out she takes to her bed, refuses to return to school and starts to write novels.  These turn out to be bestsellers – at least at first – even if they’re wildly inaccurate, far-fetched and slated by the critics.  But Angel doesn’t care – she believes she is one of the world’s greatest writers and nothing and nobody is going to stand in her way.

Elizabeth Taylor (not that one) has created a monster.  Angel is dreadful in every way – delusional, deceitful, ungrateful, selfish, vain and more.  But you can’t stop reading about her in a sort of fascinated horror.  She is oblivious to her faults and to the way that others view her and is able to sail through life in the comfortable delusion that she is clever, witty, brilliant and under-appreciated.  You would never want to spend any time with any one like her in real life, but I could happily have spend hours more reading about her antics.

There are a fair few women in books who become writers as a response to straightened circumstances – often with a trusty maid in attendance.  But they are almost always portrayed as gentlewomen brought low by financial troubles not of their own making.  Angel is not one of these – she starts writing as a way of getting her own way – initially she’s more interested in showing her neighbours that she’s better than them.  Then the money enables her to exert power over her mother, who in her attempts to allow her daughter to go further in life by scrimping and saving for a better education for her has created a stubborn tyrant who will brook no opposition.  As we follow Angel through 40 plus years we see the changes in British society as it moves from the Victorian era, through two World Wars – and we see Angel rewrite her past and invent new fictions for herself – which she believes even if those around her know other wise.

Although Angel is the centre of this book we also get to see the people she uses up and spits out – her mother, her aunt, a wannabe poetess, her husband, her servants – and the people who manage to survive her onslaught – only really her publisher and his wife.  It’s a portrait of a tyrant and it’s very, very good.

My copy of Angel is a lovely Virago Designer Hardback which I got second hand and seem to be quite hard to come by, but it’s also available in paperback from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones and on Kindle and Kobo.  And as it was first published in 1957, you have a fighting chance of being able to find yourself a second hand copy in a charity or second hand bookshop.

Happy reading.

Book of the Week: The Underground Railroad

I am not a reader of Award-Winning Books.  See my posts here and here for proof of this — and I don’t think the situation has improved much in the last two years.  But some times you hear so much buzz and chatter about a book that you have to check it out.  Particularly when you luck into a copy of said book.  And Colson Whitehead’s the Underground Railroad was one of those books.  I’d heard everybody on the Bookriot podcasts that I listen to talking about how excited they were for something new from Whitehead – and then about how brilliant it was.  It kept popping up in lists of hotly anticipated books.  It was an Oprah Bookclub pick.  It was on President Obama’s summer reading list.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I apologise for my lousy photography, but I really like the cover – with the train tracks snaking around.

The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a slave on a brutal cotton plantation in Georgia.  Life is more terrible than you can imagine, especially for Cora who is an outcast among her fellow Africans.  When Caesar, a recent arrival at the plantation suggests that they escape together, they take a terrifying risk to try and get to the Underground Railroad.  But it doesn’t go according to plan, and Cora’s journey is fraught with dangers as there are hunters after them, dogging their every move.  In Whitehead’s world the railroad is real – actual trains in tunnels under the southern states with a network of drivers and conductors ferrying runaways to safety.

This is such a powerful book.  It’s beautifully written, but oh so difficult to read – I’ve had to take it in bite-sized chunks so that I can digest it properly – but it’s worth it.  It makes you confront harsh and terrible truths about what people have done to each other and are capable of doing to each other.  But it’s also compelling and personal and page turning and clever.  Whatever I say here, I won’t be able to do it justice.  I still haven’t finished digesting it and I’m going to be thinking about it for some time to come.  It’s going to win all the awards – and it deserves to. It’s already won the National Book Award in the US and is Amazon.com editor’s Number 1 Book of the Year.  In years to come it’s going to be on English Literature syllabuses.  Well, well, well worth your time.

I would expect this to be somewhere prominent on a table or on a front facing shelf in bookshops.  It’s in hardback at the moment – and you can get it from Amazon (out of stock at time of writing, which says a lot), Waterstones and Foyles and on Kindle and Kobo.  It might make it into the supermarkets, but I’d be surprised.  The paperback is out in June.  I’m off to read some more of Whitehead’s work.

Happy reading.

Book of the Week: American Housewife

I know. I know. This is a day late. And I’m sorry. It’s been one of those weeks. Work has been quietly bonkers, I’ve been exhausted and time got away from me. Rather than rush something out to keep to schedule, I thought I’d take the extra time and do it properly.

So the BotW is Helen Ellis’s short story collection, American Housewife. These a a series of deliciously dark and funny bite-sized  tales, which I mostly read before bed. I’m not a massive short story reader, but they do make good bedtime reading because they have good obviously stopping places. And while these blackly humorous, there’s nothing here that’s going to give you nightmares. That said, Ellis doesn’t give you all the answers, some stories have distinctly ambiguous endings. Or even ambiguous middles.

Copy of American Housewife

I love the cover design – so simple and striking but appropriate for the book

I think my favourite story was the email war between two New York neighbours over their shared hallway. Or maybe the instructions on how to be a patron of the arts. Or the very unusual book club. Basically, there’s a lot of good stories here and I’m spoilt for choice.

If you fancy dipping your toe in the short story pond, this would be a very good place to start. And if you’re a short story fan, this should definitely be on your list. In fact I’d be surprised if it isn’t already. It is a hardback at the moment – and you’ll probably need to look in a proper bookshop for this (ie not the supermarket) or you can order it from Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles. It’s also available on Kindle and Kobo – at the much friendlier price of £2.99 at time of writing.

Book of the Week: Bleakly Hall

Welcome to the first Book of the Week post of 2016!  I really enjoyed writing these last year – and find that having to pick a favourite book each week really helps to focus the mind – not just about what I like and don’t like about books, but also about what I chose to read from the pile.  It doesn’t stop the bingeing on one author, but it does mean I try to add some variety in – after all a BotW from the same author each week would get very dull very quickly.  And speaking of binge-reading, there’ll be a post coming up at the weekend about the Pink Carnation series – which is one of the reasons why one of the three Lauren Willigs I read last week isn’t occupying this spot now!

So, Bleakly Hall.  This has been on the pile for over 2 years (!) – and had been on my radar for some time before that.  I think it’s another that was mentioned in the Emerald Street book section (where I’ve found several really interesting books) which I then added to my Amazon pile to wait for the price to come down (although in the end it came from Waterstones who must’ve been doing a deal judging by the prices) which is what happens to a lot of books.  Anyway, you all know about the state of my to-read pile and the less said about it the better.

Bleakly Hall

This is my best attempt at artistic. I polished the wood specially.

Bleakly Hall is a hydroprathic spa, populated by a cast of misfits and damaged people after the Great War.  New nurse Monty has taken a job there because she has a score to settle with Captain Foxley.  The Captain is there because he served with one of the two brothers who own it.  The other brother came back from the war minus his legs and now has a matrimonial problem on his hands.  Ada worked with Monty during the war – and misses the purpose and status it gave her. The residents are elderly, thin on the ground and not conducive to a health bank balance for the owners.  And then there’s the ominous noises from the pipes…

I read a lot of books set in and around the First World War as part of my A-Level English literature and the period has continued to fascinate me in the intervening years (no, I’m not telling you how many years) and so this book was right up my street.  I’m particularly fascinated with the aftermath of the war* and how it affected people so I found the characters in this fascinating.  And they are a bit of a microcosm of post-war society – people want nothing to have changed, people for whom everything has changed, others for whom everything has changed, but in a different way and then those who would quite like the war back in some ways.

This is quite black in places – there are moments that will make you laugh and then there are moments of horror.  The spa is damp and run down and there’s comedy in the treatments and quackery provided and then there are the flashbacks to Belgium and the carnage of the trenches.  The two are nicely balanced – and sometimes you realise you are still chuckling over the latest antics at the spa but you’re in the trenches and really shouldn’t be laughing.

I enjoyed (if you can call it that) Bleakly Hall – and got a lot out of it.  If you’ve read the usual Great War suspects – like Goodbye to All that, Regeneration, Testament of Youth etc – then this might be a good place to go next.  It’s available on Kindle, at Amazon (where there are some good second-hand prices), Waterstones and Foyles.

* It’s one of the aspects of Lord Peter Wimsey‘s character that I find really interesting, as is Daisy’s search for a career and a new future after the war and the changes it brought in Carola Dunn’s early Daisy Dalrymple books.